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Sweden's Saami Policy 1550 – Present: Racist?

By Emmá (Erin Dooner)

When looking back at the history of the United States, it is evident that many of the nation’s forefathers were racist and there are people today that even claim that our country was built on racism, or “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race“ (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary).” Europeans came to America and almost obliterated the native people due to European racist policies, and this leads one to think that the indigenous peoples of other countries met the same fate, or at least had to deal with racist outsiders. The native people of Sweden, the Saami, have indeed faced intrusions by outsiders for centuries and have had to deal with a state that does not always have their best interest in mind, but has the Swedish policy towards the Saami actually been racist? Sweden is supposedly one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, yet their indigenous people are not treated the same as Swedes or even newly arrived immigrants. The inequality that the Swedish state has treated the Saami with does not necessarily imply racism and does not mean that the Saami have always been subject to a racist state. However, with the emergence of social Darwinism, a hypothesis stating that “primitive” people were “less fit,” both emotionally and intellectually, as a widely accepted concept in the mid-nineteenth century, the Swedish state did in fact treat the Saami differently than the rest of the population, and the policies that resulted from this new treatment were disputably racist. Sources A critical reading of the chosen sources is necessary for numerous reasons, primarily because of the age of the texts and the bias that they historically transmit. Several of the sources are quite old, full of stereotypes and often even disparaging remarks. Nevertheless, the inclusion of these books is necessary, due to the lack of available sources, and also because they are relics from the past that display how times have changed. Other than the age, authorship is of utmost importance. Is the author a Saami, a missionary, or perhaps a Swedish historian? Depending on the author’s relation to the Saami and the agenda he or she had in writing his or her work, bias is often present, whether it is obvious or subtle. With this in mind, secondary sources such as books and articles proved extremely helpful, as well as the legitimate websites of reputable organizations, such as the Saami Information Centre or of the Swedish government and its departments. In the last decade, two major books have been published which deal explicitly with racism in Sweden: A Swedish Dilemma: A Liberal European Nation’s Struggle with Racism and Xenophobia from 2005 by Dennis Sven Nordin, a professor at Mississippi State University, and Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination from 2000, by Allan Pred, a professor at University of California at Berkeley. In both of these books, it is surprising how rarely the Saami are mentioned. These books, which are entirely about Swedish racism, mention the Saami in only two sentences. It is a bit shocking how the authors of both books can casually mention the Saami and not even devote a paragraph to the indigenous group, who are the original people in Sweden to feel the effects of Swedish racism. Currently, Sweden has many problems with racism towards Muslims, Africans and other minorities, but these new racisms should not overshadow the attention that needs to be paid to the old racisms, which is what has occurred within the Swedish society. Regardless, this makes it very difficult to find sources concerning racist actions or policies towards the Saami in Sweden. What is Saami? What the concept Saami means has changed with time and will most likely continue to transform. The author of Lapps, Björn Collinder, a distinguished scholar of Fenno-Ugric languages, believes that a Saami can not be “civilized” and be a genuine Saami (Collinder 45). The title of his book, Lapps, is a term formerly used for the Saami people and it is now considered derogatory, although when the book was written, 1949, the term was still commonly used by academics (Gjessing 1954b: 16). Even for scholars, the term Saami took time to become more commonly used than “Lapp” for reasons of practicality, as “a change of usage will reduce facility in communication until the new term is incorporated in dictionaries and works of reference (Whitaker 164).” Therefore, Lapps and other sources containing the word “Lapp” should not be disregarded as racist or ignorant, as these books were written before it was politically incorrect to use the term. Nevertheless, Collinder’s statement about the Saami not being civilized sounds as though Lapps could have been written in the nineteenth century, although his belief was a common one for his time. Starting in the 1870s, Swedish policy makers classified Saami as those who fished, hunted, and herded reindeer. If a man was ethnically Saami or of Saami descent, but pursued an agricultural livelihood, then he would be regarded by law as ethnically Swedish, which completely ignored his Saami heritage and the feeling of being Saami (Kvist 69). With this, what “Saami“ referred to in a legal sense was a specific occupation, and although the redefinition of Saaminess was carved out by the Swedish state as a gesture of Protectionism, the state revamped the concept of Saami, believing that they were protecting reindeer herders from those Saami who did not live up to the state’s view of Saaminess, and thus the state created policies that were characterized by segregation (Kvist 70). Although the state has at times designated who is Saami and who is not, there has never been a distinct definition of what “Saami” is. The Saami Parliament Act of 1993, which determines who may vote in elections for the Saami Parliament, defines Saami as a person who thinks of himself as Saami and whose first language is Saami, or has a parent or grandparent whose mother tongue was Saami (Svensk Information 5). The impact that this newer definition of Saami had was profound; it impacted politics, identity, and legal issues, and this is the definition of Saami that will be used in this paper. While this new description of Saami did not exist in the past, it can still be applied to describe the group of people that we today know as the Saami people. The start of colonization Prior to 1550, only parts of Swedish Sapmi were subjugated by the Swedish Crown. Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden from 1523 until 1560, placed Sapmi under royal administration in 1550 and this was the start of royal taxes on fur, fish, and other products, which of course resulted in increases in royal revenue. The purpose of these actions was to increase revenue and also to gain control over the same land that Denmark and Russia were also trying to get hold of, and it was less likely a method for Gustav Vasa to simply conquer the Saami for the sake of conquering them (Kvist 64). From the beginning of interactions between the Saami and the state, the Saami were seen as objects of the Crown that could be used to increase royal revenues. This was not because they were Saami or seen as a separate race, but rather because they were living during a time when the country was in need of money and would take whatever measures necessary to get it. Gustav Vasa wrote in a letter that the land we know as Sapmi, “belong[s] to God, to us and the Swedish Crown and to none other (Ruong 15).” This letter was not in reference to the Saami, but to coastal peasants who were claiming excessive amounts of land (Ruong 15). Gustav Vasa is an example of a king that wanted the land of Sapmi to be protected, regardless of whom it needed so-called protection from, and he even opposed Swedes that were trying to take too much land. Other Swedish kings did not always want the Saami’s land colonized and even tried to protect it up to a certain point (Lehtola 33). This effort did not last long and by 1673, the period of colonization started with a decree that had good intentions yet resulted in a gradual loss of land, rights, religion, and culture for the Saami (Kvist 67). The missionaries, present in Sapmi long before the colonists, had already initiated that process, but the colonists enabled the progression of this loss to greatly accelerate. Settlers moved north to Sapmi, were exempt from taxes for fifteen years, and did not even have to consult the Saami when choosing what land to settle (Svensk Information 10). This caused substantial problems for the Saami, whose entire lives are centered around nature and the land, and these problems even continue today. The beginning of colonization of Sapmi was not an effort to drive off the natives or to force them to move away, although that was an effect, but it was a way for Sweden, like the other Nordic countries, to “convert its northern sphere of influence into a fixed part of their nation (Lehtola 30).” Although the kings tried to protect the northern regions and the “noble savage,” they could only do so for so long, before they needed to tap the state’s natural resources. Power hungry states do not commonly have compassion for their inhabitants, whether they are Saami or Swedish, and it happened that the Saami were the ones to suffer as a result of colonization. That the Saami suffered at the expense of the Crown should not be overlooked; however, at this point, they were not suffering simply due to their race. Sweden was one of the Great Powers in the seventeenth century and had a large army that needed financing in order to continue the country’s imperialist conquests. In 1611, after the death of Karl IX, the Swedish Crown lost interest in Sapmi and focused its attention on the Baltic area, at least until the discovery of silver ore at Nasafjäll in Swedish Sapmi. The Saami were again in the spotlight, but this time it was for financial reasons. Miners were needed, as well as reindeer to transport materials, and, naturally, the Saami’s reindeer herds were used. The mining at Nasafjäll turned out to be a disaster, and not nearly as lucrative as had been hoped (Fur 42). There is no doubt that the state took advantage of the Saami and treated them horribly to get what it wanted, but the Saami were not the only people that suffered from the Nasafjäll fiasco. It was a matter of who was available in the desolate mountainous area, and it happened that the area was populated mainly by Saami. The Saami did receive income for their work, but the pay was little, and they were not reimbursed for their reindeer that died from exhaustion (Fur 44). Considering how the Native Americans were treated, which was not even as well as slaves, who were valued as property, it might not seem like the Saami have many complaints. The fact is that the Saami were mistreated. Whether or not the Saami people were treated badly in the mining incident because they were Saami or because they were available in the area is unclear. The Swedish miners at Nasafjäll were surely not treated with the respect that they deserved as miners, but there is not enough evidence to determine whether the Saami were treated in a racist manner or not. During the seventeenth century, Scandinavia, Russia and most of Europe were making an effort to expand their territories. States wanted more territories because increased land ownership meant increased tax revenues as well as an increase in the number of men that were able to join the army. More men were needed to join the service in order to gain more territories and repeat the process. According to the Lappmark Edict of 1673, the Saami “are lazy and useless in war (Paulston 183).” This is seemingly a useless racial slur; however, ironically, it turned out to be advantageous for the Saami, considering that they did not have to go to war. Furthermore, with all the Saami who were not required to go to war, all the extra men in Sweden’s newly added territory proved useless with regard to the expansion of the Swedish Empire. Nevertheless, the Crown continued claiming Saami land as its own. Education and religion Sweden followed the typical framework of colonization. First the missionaries came, then the state got involved, and finally the colonists started settling the land. By the time the colonists arrived in Sapmi, missionaries had already been present in the area for centuries. The seventeenth century marked the beginning of the systematic conversion of the Saami, and it was significant not only because of its effect on religion, but because formal education was introduced (Sanmark 147). Saami children did not and still do not have the same educational opportunities that other children have, but this is true for many children of sparsely populated areas. When there are fewer people, it means fewer resources and this results in fewer schools and longer distances to travel. Furthermore, Northern Sweden is economically disadvantaged compared to the rest of the country, and again, this means that many schools do not have the resources that are needed to provide an education equal to the one that children in Southern Sweden receive. In spite of this, the schooling offered the Saami does not differ greatly from the education offered to Swedish children and the curricula of schools predominantly attended by Saami does not differ substantially from other schools where Swedes are the majority (Cohen 40). The conditions for Saami schoolchildren have improved considerably, with the Swedish state continuously modifying their paternalistic views of what is best for the Saami, but these paternalistic ideas have actually benefitted the Saami to some degree, at least when it comes to education. Before the state took responsibility for religion, the missionaries established schools. The clergy was not accepting of the Saami and traditional Saami beliefs, and, already by the seventeenth century, the missionaries had managed to convert many Saami, albeit to varying degrees (Ruong 73). The entire concept of colonization is based on ethnocentrism; therefore, colonization can also possibly be linked to racism. There were racist missionaries, but not all of them were. They were there to proselytize, as they were present in all of Sweden to do, and race did not play such a major role in the presence and efforts of the clergy as did the Saami religion, which was non-Christian. The three types of schools, nomad schools, boarding schools, and normal primary schools, were all concerned with making the Saami literate and giving them a religiously focused rather than an all around education (Cohen 39). Considering that the missionaries were primarily responsible for education, it is not surprising that the education offered the Saami was largely religious based. Although there might have been racist ulterior motives to keep the Saami uneducated on other matters of the world, missionaries are still missionaries and they have their objective, which was of course to convert the Saami to the Christian faith. At least concerning the education provided by missionaries, the education system was not rife with racist ideals. Many Saami inhabited the land known as Sweden and therefore, the state believed that the Saami should also have to obey the laws that all Swedish inhabitants were subject to; however, the Saami were required to follow even more rules than the majority. It was mandatory that some Saami children go to school starting in the seventeenth century, something that ethnic Swedish children did not have to do (Rydving 59). It is most probable that Saami children had to go to school when Swedish children did not as it was an early instance of the Swedish state imposing their paternalistic views on the Saami. The ideology followed the logic that the Saami were uneducated and therefore uncivilized; hence, they had to attend school. It is also likely that the authorities viewed the Saami as “heathens” that needed to learn how to read so that they would be able to read the Bible and other Christian materials and then tell their Saami friends and relatives what they had learned. The Saami, like any group, it was believed, were more likely to listen and to understand someone from within their group, making the conversion process easier for the missionaries. The Saami were singled out as a race in the instance of forced education, but again, it brings forth the question of whether or not proselytizing is inherently racist. Starting in 1723, once new schools were established, in which the Saami were to be taught in their own language, the clergy were required to learn the Saami language (Kvist 67). It is surprising that the clergy were required to do this and furthermore that the Saami were to receive education in their own language. It shows that the clergy were making an effort to educate the Saami without completely forcing total assimilation. However, it is important to keep in mind that the new schools and Saami language requirement were most probably created for the same reasons that school attendance was obligatory for some: to be able to teach the Saami enough so that they could read about Christianity, spread the word, and to “civilize” them. Forcing another group to assimilate can be viewed as racist, but whether it was racist, paternalistic, a mixture of both or neither is impossible to determine. Beginning of the racist policies It is true that life for the Saami was very difficult, but so was life for the majority of the Swedish population. Living conditions, the economic situation, and impositions by the state created harsh times, and the Saami were not treated well; conversely, very few people were. All Swedish subjects were taxed and people were used to further the advancement of the Swedish state’s position as one of the Great Powers. The suffering that the Saami endured was not explicitly due to racism, although some Saami were forced to deal with racist Swedish neighbors or other individuals. The Saami were in effect treated primarily like the majority of the population, with forced education and conversion being major exceptions. Again, it is difficult to determine whether these exceptions were due to the racist feelings of the Swedes or if the Swedish clergy were simply paternalistic. Although the paternalistic viewpoint is negative, it is distinguishable from racism. This was true, at least until the nineteenth century, when social Darwinism appeared and the Swedish state adopted new policies; however, they were not policies rooted in social Darwinism, but racism (Lundmark 2002: 17). Sweden was by no means immune to the racial views that spread throughout Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first racial biology institute in the world, the Swedish Institute for Racial Biology, was founded in 1922 in Uppsala, with the support of the Swedish government and the Swedish people (Drouard 266). Its founder, Herman Lundborg, ranked humans according to their accomplishments and unsurprisingly, he placed scientists at the top of his scale and the Saami at the bottom (Nordin 17). He was strongly against Saami and Swedes marrying, and for a while, he used all of the Institute’s resources to study the Saami, and believed that by studying their skulls, he could prove that interracial marriage was bad for the future of the Swedish race (Lundmark 2005: 14). Luckily, a law similar to the German Nuremberg Laws, which forbade the marriage of people of Jewish descent to Germans, was never passed in Sweden, which would have prohibited the marriage of Saami and non-Saami. Starting in 1937 and until the end of World War II, the Nuremberg Laws were just a recommendation given by the Swedish Foreign Office, yet most of the ministers of the Church of Sweden chose to follow the recommendation (Jarlert 144). While this reveals nothing about the Saami, it does show that the Swedish Church, then a part of the Swedish state, had no reservations about upholding racist policies and even enforcing them when they were not required to do so. Social Darwinists without a doubt believed in the inferiority of the Saami as a people, but the idea spread to members of the non-scientific community as well. In the early 1800’s, the idea that cultures could be inferior to others came to Sweden (Lundmark 2006: 5). The opinion that prevailed in the Swedish Parliament, where the Saami had no representation, was that the Saami would eventually die out or assimilate. Social Darwinists compared Saami with immature children that needed help, and the Swedish government believed that since the Saami were weak, they needed protection (Lundmark 1999: 92, Kvist 69). With members of the Swedish Parliament believing in social Darwinism, it was now even easier for racist ideas to spread and for these ideas to be reflected in new policies. Social Darwinism is not the same as racism; however, some believe that it supports racism, and social Darwinism, like science, is often used to justify the proposal and enactment of racist social policies. Therefore, it is not a surprise that social Darwinism was used to the advantage of racists, who viewed it as a legitimate theory to validate their racial claims. The mid nineteenth century marked the growing support of racist and paternalistic feelings towards the Saami, but ironically, it also meant the beginning of better conditions for the Saami (Lundmark 2006: 6). In 1871 and 1890, the Odlingsgränsen was drawn which allowed the Saami to have their reindeer anywhere west of the line. Starting in 1886, the Saami were allowed to have their reindeer at the coast during the winter, but not in any new areas (Lundmark 2006: 6). The Odlingsgränsen, the 1886 law and additional laws that were enacted at the end of the century created a reindeer herding monopoly for the Saami, as it was restricted to Saami only. The strengthening of Saami rights, even if they were based on paternalism or racism, came at a price. As previously mentioned, policy makers began to make distinctions between herding and non-herding Saami starting in the 1870s, but it was the 1928 Reindeer Pasture Act that made the distinction official. Parliament enacted the 1928 Reindeer Pasture Act, which stated that Saami must herd reindeer and continue living as nomads to enjoy the new herding rights, and one must be Saami to be a reindeer herder, and a reindeer herder to be Saami (Lundmark 2005: 14). Furthermore, the act narrowed down the definition of Saami even further by stating that only those with a parent or a grandparent, whose primary source of income was herding, were allowed to herd, and were therefore Saami (Sonniksen). This act was another way for Sweden to keep the Saami in their traditional role as reindeer herders. If a Saami wanted to open a shop or a hotel, they would be forced to give up their reindeer and apply for the authorization to buy land, like any Swede (Nesheim 28). Sometimes reindeer herders who only had a small number of reindeer would take casual forestry or mining work, in order to save up enough money to buy more reindeer, but, when they tried to return to work as reindeer herders, the district administrator did not allow it (Hill 66). The loss of the right to herd reindeer meant that these Saami would have to change their occupation completely, and to many, it meant losing a part of their identity. This obviously caused a great dilemma for the Saami reindeer herders with financial difficulties. One could either choose to be a poor reindeer herder, and suffer; or he could choose to be a reindeer herder that took a side job in an attempt to better his way of life, risking the loss of said way of life. The Swedish state effectively took away the ability of the Saami to make living conditions better for themselves, while maintaining their traditional ways of life and occupations, and if one tried, that Saami person would be stripped of his identity vis-à-vis his occupation. With the state, it was either integrate or live a completely traditional nomadic lifestyle. It was commonly thought that the Saami were simply born inferior and that these inherited undesirable traits meant that the Saami were incapable of doing anything except for reindeer herding. Therefore, it would be impossible for any Saami to ever live in a ‘proper’ house, as this new form of living would tempt the Saami to neglect their inherently nomadic lifestyle. Because reindeer herding was the only profession the Saami were deemed capable of, it was concluded that a sedentary lifestyle would cause the Saami to become a race of beggars (Lundmark 2005: 14). According to the Bishop of Luleå, the religious head and leader of the 1913 school reform in Sapmi, if the Saami “continue with reindeer breeding, they can count upon a secure source of livelihood. It is, accordingly, of national economic interest that the Lapps retain their inherited source of livelihood (Paulston 183 – 184).” This shows that the Swedish Church, which was a part of the Swedish state, did not just have the best interest of the Saami in mind, but that they were concerned for the country’s interest as a whole as well. This was not a new concept, and it continues today, with Sweden keeping the best interest of the country in mind before the best interest of the Saami. The prevalent attitude of the time was that, “A Lapp shall be a Lapp, for then he serves his motherland best,” which was stated in the Nomad Schools Act of 1913 (Paulston 186). The racist and paternalistic outlook that was taking shape in Sweden was then applied to the education system. With this act, the beginning of the segregationist policies was introduced, by requiring that Saami school children attend the nomad schools where they would receive a “lower grade of civic education than other Swedish children (Ruong 77).” The Swedish state no longer wanted to “civilize” the Saami children, as it was deemed impossible, so these nomad schools were quite primitive. One of the men who was responsible for Saami affairs claimed that the Saami “are happiest if they know just enough for them to be able to derive benefit from the conditions under which they live, and then they are also of most use to others (Ruong 78).” The nomad schools were supposed to “order the tuition in such a way that it does not make the children unused to nomad life” and also “furnish an opportunity of the best possible tuition for all the children of nomad Lapps (Ruong 78).” This is a departure from earlier times when Sweden wanted to “civilize” the Saami by teaching them how to read and converting them to Christianity and educating them for the sake of assimilation (Cohen 39). Now the state wanted to educate them, but only enough so that they could perform their duties as an inferior Saami. The nomad schools taught Saami children the skills needed to maintain their traditional lives. It offered courses like reindeer herding, hunting and duodji. If a Saami child wanted to attend a public school, he would be denied. Additionally, the police would come for the Saami children that did not go to the nomad schools (Lundmark 2005: 15). On one hand, the nomad schools were forcing the Saami children to live their traditional Saami way of life, because it was believed that it was all that the Saami could do, while on the other hand, the nomad schools effectively preserved certain aspects of Saami tradition. The nomad schools were established due to the paternalistic views of those who established the schools, but the nomad schools were not so disadvantageous to the Saami, as the education that was provided to the Saami was an education that would mean the preservation of certain aspects of the Saami culture, which is something that is lacking today in the education system for the Saami. The Saami After WWII Following World War II, Sweden, like the rest of the world, could not continue with its segregationist and racist attitudes. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights called attention to the rights of different indigenous groups, and, by entering this and other such agreements, Sweden re-evaluated its racist perceptions of the Saami and these racially driven ideas gradually diminished with time and with scientific research (Lehtola 58). Although they persisted to some degree, many things were about to change for the Saami, mainly thanks to the formation of several Saami organizations that fought for Saami rights. The desire for equal rights resulted in the mobilization of the Saami people, who now demanded the cultural and territorial rights that the Swedish state had been denying them. The Saami have started claiming water and land that was once recognized by the state as belonging to the Saami, but Sweden does not acknowledge these claims (Lehtola 84). The Saami usually won court cases concerning land and water use until the 1780s, but when their ownership of the land started to conflict with agricultural interests, the Saami started losing the cases (Kvist 68). It is possible that there were some very racist politicians running the country; however, it is more likely that the state simply does not want to give that land away, even if it is to its rightful owner. It took until 1977 for the Swedish Parliament to recognize the Saami as the indigenous people of Sweden and that they are not just a minority (“The Saami and the Swedish State”). This recognition was not just about difference in wording; it was about the changes that would occur because of it. It then took until 1993 for the Saami Parliament in Sweden to be set up (Svensk Information 11). The sixteen-year gap between the acknowledgement of the Saami as an indigenous people and the establishment of the Saami Parliament exemplifies how slow the Swedish government is to bring about change when it concerns the Saami. Five years later, the Saami received an apology from the Swedish government for the oppression that they were met with by the Swedish state (Svensk Information 63). This apology makes it appear as though the Swedish government is sorry, but no major actions have taken place to actually prove their regret. A National Plan for Human Rights 2006 – 2009 is a communication of the Swedish government which explicitly outlines specific rights, many of which concern the Saami, that need to be strengthened (Ministry of Justice 1). This shows that the Swedish government is at least trying to improve the rights of the Saami, but only time will tell if the situation will actually change or not. Conclusion According to the well-known ethnologist, Åke Campbell, in the 1960 book, Lapps To-Day, “The bulk of the Swedish population has always considered the Lapps an inferior people requiring the guardianship of Sweden (Nesheim 33).” Hopefully the majority of the current Swedish population would disagree with this statement, but the historical facts indicate that the policy makers, if not Swedes in general, have felt the Saami to be inferior, or at least in need of a guardian. History shows us that Sweden generally treated the Saami the same as they treated all of the inhabitants of Sweden until the last few hundred years. The racist and paternalistic thoughts that were formulated in the nineteenth century at a time when Europe was greatly influenced by social Darwinism were still present during the Second World War and these thoughts have taken a long time to slowly fade away. The Saami, like most native peoples across the world, have had to deal with outsiders encroaching upon their land for centuries. Considering the cases of many other indigenous groups, it is amazing that the Saami have survived so long with so much contact with outsiders. Colonization did not begin until 1673, but already in 1550 with the introduction of royal administration, we can see the beginning of a gradual loss of culture, land, and rights; however, the loss of these important elements of Saami society was not due to racial views Swedes held of Saami, at least not until the 1870s. As a result of the Swedish Saami Policy that emerged in the nineteenth century, a time when social Darwinism was spreading through Europe, the Saami are still treated unequally today. Conditions are improving for the Saami, in large part due to their growing participation in organizations and their newly gained ability to participate politically, yet Sweden still has far to go in restoring the rights of the Saami.


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